By Aurelia Fierros at Huffington Post Latino Voices
Guillermo Gomez-Sanchez, a Mexican national and lawful U.S. resident declared incompetent to stand trial in an ongoing deportation case, will learn his fate from an immigration judge in San Diego on Dec. 8, 2011.
This 50 year-old man has been diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia and speaks little English, and he has languished in detention for five years. Four of these years were spent in immigration custody, lost in a detention system that -- unlike its criminal justice counterpart -- lacks clear and appropriate procedures to address the mentally impaired.
"The next fight is in an immigration court to determine if he should be deported or not, and in federal court in an ongoing fight to determine if he should remain in immigration custody while we fight his case," said Bardis Vakili, staff attorney of the ACLU of Southern California and the pro bono counsel for Gomez-Sanchez.
The lengthy ordeal began in 2004, when Gomez-Sanchez was involved in a one-on-one altercation in Los Angeles. He was convicted of assault with a deadly weapon and sentenced to two years in prison. His legal status was automatically challenged and deportation proceedings initiated. The case remained in administrative limbo for more than two years after an immigration judge instructed the Department of Homeland Security to conduct a psychiatric evaluation on the inmate and the agency failed to comply. His case was not reopened until September 2008 -- over two years later.
On March 26, 2010, the ACLU filed a lawsuit in a U.S. Federal District Court in Southern California charging that due process and federal immigration statutes were violated in the case, including federal anti-discrimination laws designed to protect people with disabilities. Gomez-Sanchez was released five days later.
"He is currently in an ankle monitor, needs to report every month and has travel restrictions. ... I guess what we get from all of this is that there is no procedure on how to treat cases of mentally ill individuals," explained Vakili. "If his family [had] been aware of what happened, and [if] he had an attorney from the very beginning, his case wouldn't have gotten lost in the system for so long."
While he had received legal assistance for his criminal charges, he did not originally get an attorney for the immigration proceedings. It took one year before Gomez-Sanchez's mother, Dolores Sanchez de Gomez, could locate him, but she once again lost track of him due to frequent transfers to various detention facilities during his incarceration.
"I looked for him all of those years. I was desperate. When they finally handed him over to me, he had a black eye, some of his teeth had been knocked out and he had a broken nose," said Dolores Sanchez to HuffPost LatinoVoices. "He was so intoxicated with the medication they gave him, that he acted like a robot. He is still in the process of detoxifying. Do you think this is fair? And on top of everything they still want to deport him?" she asked, seemingly incredulous.
Groups advocating to halt Gomez-Sanchez's deportation proceedings argue that he was ignored, forgotten and dropped into a legal "black hole." They claim negligence and denounce inadequate policies, as well as various interests lobbying to expand the for-profit prison system, of which they maintain that Gomez-Sanchez was a victim.
Part of social justice media organization Brave New Foundation, Cuentame ("tell me" or "count on me" in Spanish), has produced a series of short films denouncing an alleged connection between the current illegal immigration policy and the for-profit corrections industry.
Cuentame's documentary series "Immigrants For Sale" includes Guillermo Gomez-Sanchez's story. His segment explores the motives for being kept in detention for such a long time, highlighting that he spent almost two of the four years in immigration custody at a for–profit facility in San Diego.
Steve Owen, senior director of public affairs from Corrections Corporation of America, said the company could not comment on specific cases but explained that CCA is a private organization compensated for providing specialized detention services, and not for "jailing illegals."
"It does upset me to see this kind of criticism because they don't fully comprehend all the efforts and discipline we have in place. Most of those who criticize us are well intentioned, but they have to understand that we are not involved in policy-making. Those claims are false. They took that information from an NPR report but everything said there is not a factual argument," Owen told HuffPost Latino Voices.
The CCA spokesman insisted that they provide humane and professional services, "always seeking to preserve the dignity of all inmates and abiding by very strict performance policies that involve announced and unannounced public inspectors."
Lori K. Haley, Immigration and Customs Enforcement public affairs spokeswoman for the Western Region, said of Gomez-Sanchez, "Mr. Gomez-Sanchez was released from ICE custody in March 2010 under a federal order of supervision. Mr. Gomez-Sanchez's case is currently pending in the immigration courts, which are responsible for scheduling aliens for immigration hearings and determining whether those aliens have a legal right to remain in the United States."
The next hearing in his federal court case, scheduled for Oct. 12, 2011, will review whether Gomez-Sanchez remains in immigration "custody" under the law in light of his ankle monitor and current movement restrictions. The lower court's decision maintained that once he is out of detention, he is no longer in their custody, so they are not required to rule on the ongoing lawsuit challenging the legality of his detention. The team representing Gomez-Sanchez argues that he is still in custody because "immigration still maintains significant authority over his life and freedom." He will not be present at the hearing.
Gomez-Sanchez's next immigration court date is set for Dec. 8, 2011. "Normally, Guillermo would have to be there for such a hearing, but the immigration judge was kind enough to waive his presence, realizing that it is extremely difficult for the family to make the journey to San Diego. This is fine with me, because the judge's courtroom is in the detention facility itself, and I would prefer Guillermo never go back there," explained Vakili.
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